Ballyneal 2009

6/15/2009 0 comments

I was wrong. I've been wrong all along. And contrary to what my wife might tell you, I'm not afraid to admit when I am wrong.

For years, I thought that there were no other golf-obsessed dorks out there like my homies Jefe and Jimbo. No other guys would skip all meals between sunrise and sunset in order to not waste time better spent golfing. No other guys would walk 54 holes, wake up at 6 am the next morning and do it all over again (and again). No other guys could tolerate my rapidly declining golf game and increasingly erratic behavior towards my rapidly declining golf game. No other guys would refuse to go to the doctor after breaking their foot while teaching their daughter how to long jump while barefoot in the backyard, simply out of fear of missing a big golf trip. On second thought...Jefe probably IS the only one capable of doing that one.

Heck, I even pitched a reality-show to the Golf Channel just to help us find a guy to join our group (and what a grand prize that would be! You get paired up with 3 middle-aged golf-a-holics that might have a nervous breakdown at any moment. Plus you'd likely have to share a queen size bed with Jimbo. I have no idea why it never got off the ground.)

But I was dead wrong. All I had to do was spend a weekend at Ballyneal with 10 dudes from In case you didnt know, GCA is a group of 1500 or so golf-architect nuts that come together on the web (and in a handful of cases per year, in person) for 'frank commentary on golf course architecture' and a bunch of other golf-related (loosely defined) topics.

'Who needs a fourth?' Heck, how about a fifth, sixth or seventh? I was admittedly nervous about spending three days with a bunch of guys I've never met before. I was even more concerned about being the lone oddball who wanted to play 54 holes everyday. I even warned them in advance. Boy, was I wrong on all fronts. These guys are hard core. If Jefe or Jimbo got hit by a bus tomorrow (or went on the DL with a broken foot), any one of these guys could step up in a heartbeat. In fact, I might just go ahead and replace them. I doubt any of my GCA friends would leave me high-and-dry at a post-round Chili's (yes, I'm still bitter.)

We had guys from all parts of the country and all walks of life. A New York City cop, a doctor, an Air Force pilot, a fantasy-basketball guru (wait, that was me) just to name a few. All different personalities but with one common bond - an unhealthy addiction to the game.

Ballyneal was the perfect venue for the festivities, since it seems to be the adopted-son of GCA for embodying nearly everything that is valued by the collective group - firm-and-fast conditions, lots of options on every shot, perfect risk and reward balance, exhilirating green complexes, and most importantly, fun. Simply put, Ballyneal is the most fun you can have on a golf course. And judging by the laughs I heard from three fairways away (most originating from Brad from New York) and the 400+ times I heard the word 'awesome' in one weekend, I'm not the only one with that opinion.

Way too much to write about for the entire weekend, so I'll just cover a couple highlights:

- Holyoke has been dumped on with rain for the last two weeks. The place only gets 17 inches of rain a year on average, and they've received more than that already this year. They got 5 inches in 3 hours about 10 days ago. Still, the course was in fantastic shape although not in its true firm-and-fast glory. It's amazing how fast that course drains. It's also amazing how fast the course greens up with just a little bit of rain. Great for pictures, but the course is even more fun when it's brown.

- I never did get 54 holes in because we got rained out on Sunday evening after 45 holes. The only consolation was a spectacular sunset and unbelievable rainbow after the storms passed. Check out the pictures below.

- I continued my trend of awful play and hit rock bottom after the morning round of Day 2. Head pro Matt Payne sensed my desperation and fixed my swing in about 10 range balls. I'm slowly on the way to recovery even though I was 50/50 on good swing/bad swing the rest of the way. But I feel good about it, whereas before I was ready to start fresh and take up the game as a righty.

- Backhanded Diss of the Week: After apologizing to my caddy for constantly dragging him up to the dunes to find my errant drives, he told me 'you're not as bad as the guy I had yesterday. He only hit like 5 fairways.' 5 fairways sounded pretty good to me at the time.

- Bernie's cousin: Air Force pilot Ben had one of Bandon's famous tufted-puffin headcovers. I told him I liked his headcover, and he said, 'Thanks. His name is Murphy.' I can't decide if Jimbo really is normal or Ben is equally crazy. But after Jimbo sent me the following response: "Bernie took a look at the pic and thinks he and Murphy used to hang out at beach. He says Murphy is a good ol' guy", I'm leaning towards the latter.

- Congrats to the Lakers and all, but any comparison of Kobe to MJ is still absolutely absurd. Sorry, it had to be said.

- Speaking of hoops, Ballyneal member Matt made my day by asking if I played swingman in hoops, simply because I looked like a baller. I don't think I've ever received a higher compliment. Sadly, I had to admit that I was nothing more than a garbage player (although I did hit a game-winning shot in a rec-league game once). Combine that with the 8-stroke increase in my golf game and the sad 51 mph display on the speed pitch at the Wheaton town carnival last week, it's safe to say that my best athletic days are behind me. How depressing. I feel like a Bruce Springsteen song.

- Most of the dinner conversation revolved around three things: 1.) how awesome the course is, 2.) Justin Timberlake (all originating from Rich from Seattle), and 3.) Mike from Seattle's golf swing. This guy should charge admission to let people see his ball flight. Dead straight and like a rocket, taking off low and spiraling up like a 1990-tour player with those old balatas, except about 60 yards longer. Playing with Mike is like a constant 4-hour reminder of just how not good you are.

- Hard Shell's Cousin: I 'snapped' (ha! get it) a picture of one of the local turtles and e-mailed it to my kids, knowing my 7-year old son would get a kick out of it since he has a pet turtle named Hard Shell. Here's the e-mail response I got from them:

From my son: "Thanks for the picture - I really like it. It is like one of the best I ever saw. I like the tortoise. I wonder what kind of tortoise it is? Bye Dad."

From my 5-year old daughter: "I like the turtle. The turtle is great - I am going to get a bunny for my pet."

- Where's Jefe?: Speaking of e-mails, here's one I got from Jefe, since I know you're wondering what he was up to while I was frolicking in the Chop Hills.

"Coltrain, good to see you're getting some professional help. Your swing looks the same to me as it always has so it shows what I know.

Is the course in good shape, really firm? Sounds like you've had some rain to maybe soften things up. I was thinking as I read this email that I think you may have actually played as much or more golf than I have this year so far, you're really racking up the rounds in CO.

The difference now between Coltrain and I is that he is playing Ballyneal while I am playing The Dump. I went out to Settler's Hill [ed note: a public course built on a landfill in Geneva, IL, hence The Dump for obvious and multiple reasons.] last night, I went 43-41 84. I only had one quad this time around, so I'm improving.


- By far the biggest highlight for me was having two people approach me about the blog. One guy, Victor from Seattle, knows Jefe and Jimbo well enough now that the courts may have to issue a restraining order. After we putted out on the 7th, he asked to see the spot where Jimbo took a chunk out of the green with a misguided chip shot last year. The next morning, he admitted, 'From the time it was confirmed that I was coming here until the time I got on the plane, your blog SUSTAINED ME.' How do you top that?

- Did I mention Ballyneal is fun? Ballynizzle is off da hizzle!

Yes, that's my ball in that bunker.

Land of the Lost (and Forgotten)

6/03/2009 0 comments

It's not often one gets the chance to play a course that has hosted a major championship. Normally, this would be a memorable, once-in-a- lifetime event. Unless the course is Kemper Lakes, site of the 1989 PGA Championship. Today, it's just a typical private club and site of the 2009 CDGA Sunshine through Golf foundation charity outing (Quick plug: do you want to play some nice private clubs in the Chicagoland area for cheap AND help out mentally and physically handicapped kids in the process? Check out these CDGA charity outings. They have a series of Monday afternoon events at different clubs in the area and they're only 75 dollars per person, including lunch and a commerative golf towel. Personally, it's all about the kids, but the golf is an added bonus.)

I've always had warm, fuzzy feelings about Kemper. In 1989, I was a high-school sophomore and my golf team was invited to work the PGA as sign-boys, forecaddies, etc. (although I hadn't met him yet, Jefe was working the tournament as well). For my buddy Wego and I, working met raiding the hospitality tent for free burgers and ice cream, getting free admission to watch the tournament and molesting Arnold Palmer for autographs behind the 18th green on Sunday. Good times. Compared to the goat tracks we played in high school, Kemper might have well been Augusta National.

Fast forward ten years and we were teeing it up on Kemper Lakes the day before my wedding day. A great time at a quality course, capped off by a birdie on the infamous 18th, my last hole as a bachelor (a tidbit I shared with the Tang brothers dozens of times duribg yesterday's outing.)

Fast forward another ten years and while I'm happy to report that my marriage is still going strong, Kemper Lakes just doesn't have the same mystique. It was a built in an era when water hazards and tree-lined fairways were in vogue. 7,200 yards was deemed uber-long in the days before titanium drivers and pro v-1's. It's still a nice course and a quality club, but it's hard to believe it actually hosted a major just 20 years ago. Today, Kemper is the poster child for why the PGA Championship plays fourth fiddle in golf's grand slam, a stigma it has always battled but has improved upon with stronger courses with fair course set-ups in recent years.

The event was a shotgun start and we started on the short par 3, 3rd hole. It's a 170-yard shot over water to a smallish green, or in other words, a hole that you've probably seen before at 50 other parkland courses. I'm sure it struck fear into golfers back in the day. With no room to lengthen, the pros would chew it up today with 8-irons. Heck, both Tang brothers birdied it, which has to be the first indication that a golf hole is too easy.

The rest of the front nine is pretty ho-hum and would be a birdiefest for your average tour pro. The only defense is some man-made lakes defending two very reachable par 5's and some pin positions that they can tuck into a corner between bunkers. The back nine gets a little more interesting with some wooded holes and a wet n wild 16-17-18 finish.

Reflecting on Kemper two days later, I couldn't help but see the parallels between the course and my own golf game. Two former Chicago golf legends (work with me here) well past their prime. The only difference is it took Kemper twenty years to slowly deteriorate into oblivion. My demise has occurred seemingly overnight. I've fully morphed into a 14-handicapper in less than 18 months. I've hit rock bottom. At least I hope so. Jefe and Jimbo don't even know what to say to me. They just look at me like my dog died and avoid all contact like I have the swine flu.

In the morning, we had a warm-up round at Foxford Hills, a decent public track in Cary. I've been out there before and have owned that course, shooting 73, 74 and 76. This week? 90 with a mulligan. Somehow I did manage to birdie the 11th in one of the few signs of life. Jefe and Jimbo treated my birdie like I had just won the U.S. Open. You know you're bad when pars feel like birdies and birdies feel like you've won a major. I am the David Ortiz of recreational golf (minus the steroids).

I did have a built in excuse: I was forced to use my old clubs. My trusty Taylor Made Burner mid-size irons, clubs and grips circa 1991. A carbite center-shafted putter that I forgot I had even owned until I pulled my old bag out of the basement. 'You didn't use that one long,' jefe recalled upon seeing it. With good reason. That putter was awful at the time (staying in the bag slightly longer than Jefe's broomstick putter three years ago), and even worse today. The golf ball looked like a knuckleball rolling off the clubface.

Old clubs or new, I have entered this golf abyss where standing over the ball I have a 50/50 chance of either hitting a clunker or hitting it absolutely pure. How do you plan for that? On #17 at Foxford Hills, I pured a 7-iron and immediately after the ball left the clubface, I declared, 'That's wet.' Sure enough, I had air-mailed the green by at least 15 yards and into the pond behind the green. My day effectively ended on our third hole at Kemper, when I duck-hooked my drive about 120 yards off the tee, then nailed a 6-iron recovery shot that not only went through the fairway, but also through the rough and OVER the large maintenance barn on the outside of the dogleg. Does anybody have Hank Haney's e-mail? I'd be a great candidate to replace Charles Barkeley as next season's 'Project'.

Even with my game in a state of disrepair, Jefe was still the same ol' schizophrenic Jefe. His round at Kemper could only be described as 'extreme' even by his standards. In addition to his routine birdie on the opening par 3, he had two other birdies, including one on the brutal par 3 17th with a 25 mile per hour crosswind. He owned the par 3's, but the par 5's owned him. On the 7th hole, he chipped the ball from just off the back fringe, through the green and into the water, en route to a 10. On the 11th hole, he hit two out of bounds and made an 11. Two deuces and two double-digit holes in the same round. That's hard to do.

Then for the icing on the cake, Jefe holed out a wedge shot from about 125 yards on the par 5 15th. I thought it was for eagle, but it turns out Jefe had already taken an 'X' on the hole after he realized his drive was out of bounds. His reaction was priceless, knowing he had wasted one of his life's pre-ordained hole-outs on a shot that didn't matter. Two deuces, two double-digits and a hole out for an 'X'. Don't try this at home.

But given the choice between Jefe's feast-or-famine style or my new 'hard bogey, easy double' game, I'd choose Jefe's in a heartbeat. I never thought I'd reach the point where I'd be envious of Jefe's golf game. Wow...I really have hit rock bottom. Consider this my cry for help. Mr. Haney? Anybody?

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